La Colombe’s Unique Approach to Product Development
RTD cold brew coffee has grown at an exponential rate over the past ten years. According to mintel.com, RTD cold brew sales exploded between 2010 and 2015 by 339%. No wonder every coffee company in the country is trying to figure out how they can get in on the action. La Colombe has been there from the beginning as a very early adopter of cold brew RTD single serve. They started out brewing small batches, bottling themselves, and crown-capping their bottles by hand. Today they have their well-known draft latte cans that enjoy nationwide distribution.
Innovation has defined La Colombe’s path and success in RTD. I took a moment to catch up with Partner and VP of Wholesale Nicolas O’Connell and Co-Founder and CEO Todd Carmichael to discuss their approach to innovation and how it has served them in their business.
One of the key insights I picked up was that La Colombe is unique in its intuitive approach to decision making rather than relying on over-wrought data. For example, when I asked Todd, ‘What are the key variables LCT (La Colombe Torrefaction) considers when developing a new product? Demographics? Market reports? consumer data?’
Todd answers, “Ultimately, I’m looking for a ‘missing something.’ Something that I love and others might love too. Part of the magic of innovation is understanding that empty space and trying to fill it.”
“What is your process for developing new products, Todd? Take me through the cold brew shandy, for example,”
“All innovation is a single spark and then a long grind, or a flash of inspiration followed by endless ditch digging. The spark for the lemon shandy came from an intern, Carli, who was studying food science. When she mentioned it, I unwisely dismissed it, yet OK’d her to make some for the team to taste. She was right; it bounces. With other products, like Draft Latte on tap, Draft Latte in a can, the cold brew on tap system, or even the dragon, the spark begins in my head, and I grind it forward alone or with one other person. Once we get it on its feet, we pull in other people as we go. Like I say ad nauseam, “nothing is ever finished,” especially not me, and certainly not coffee. There should always be more.”
Nicolas reinforces this idea when he explains the development of the original Draft Latte. “Todd was obsessed, and we took the prototype to Expo West and pre-sold cans. We did not have a product yet, and we had to finish everything in time to deliver on our contracts. No one was there to guide us because no one had done it before – we were explorers. Of course, we had to launch before we were finished. We are still not finished. We are still working on it.”
Seeing the can all over the country from Hawaii to Maine, I had to ask, “Nico, what did the Draft Latte mean to your business?”
Nico smiles and gets excited to explain, “It was an enormous lift to give us a national footprint. It has also increased wholesale. The cans act as our mini billboards. Every detail of the can has been perfected from the visual architecture of the design to the sensory aspect of the lip guard.” It is a complete expression of the luxury brand that La Colombe conveys.
Intuition plays a significant role in how the company is managed, from La Colombe’s hiring to their innovation down to the customer experience they deliver. This approach can be advantageous as it is difficult for other companies to anticipate what you will do next if your decisions are not led by publicly known trends and analytics. We are all excited to see what will come next.